Sunday, January 23, 2011

Long Live the Crowd

We seem to idolize solo heroes. We feel they are even more special if they act like a cowboy (i.e. Bruce Willis in Die Hard) or if they have a rebellious streak (i.e. James Dean). The solo hero makes a great story and an exciting movie. Somehow this attitude seems to creep into management thinking and the popular press doesn't help the problem. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs both receive the celebrity manager treatment.

They're both talented guys and clearly a force unto themselves. But if we scrape just below the surface, their success was never a solo effort. Initial wins for both were based on partnerships. Mr. Jobs with Steve Wozniak, Mr. Gates with Paul Allen. Even in pop music, the longest and most enduringly successful franchise is Jagger/Richards.

I teach an executive education course a few times each year. When I talk about emphasizing teamwork, the one statement that draws the most agreement in every session is "help the crowd stand out, rather than stand out in a crowd." In other words, good managers build teams and partnerships; they don't focus on their personal profile. They develop relationships, nurture partnerships, and feed friendships. They build a network of mutually supportive links that acts like a crowd moving cohesively in one direction.

Despite what we read, we should not confuse popularity with effectiveness. Managers exist to convert resources into goals. They don't exist to draw publicity to themselves. Getting things done extremely well is not meant to draw attention.

Nevertheless, celebrity managers exist because we need simple ways for the popular press to explain extraordinarily successful organizations like Apple and Microsoft. It's much easier to say Microsoft was a success just because of Bill than it is to explain the intricate web of complexity drawn by market conditions, personal circumstances, and technology innovation that helped to fertilize and grow Microsoft.

All I urge is a sense of caution the next time you read about a superstar leader. Don't try to emulate a simplified notional sketch of a successful manager. Dig deeper. Understand all the reasons for success. I'm pretty sure it was not because the manager was a rebel cowboy.

The solo management genius is a myth. Long live the crowd.


No comments:

Post a Comment